The German Thai Link



The Thai alphabet is indirectly of Indian origin. In 1283 A.D., the great King Ram Khamhaeng of the Sukhothai Dynasty of Thailand instituted the present Thai alphabet.

Though modelled on the Indian alphabet through the medium of the old Khmer characters, the Thai alphabet differs from the Indian and the Khmer in two essential points. In Indian and Khmer writing when two or more consonants come in contact as an initial or an ending of a word or a syllable, they coalesce into one whole when written: a certain consonant (or consonants) becomes abbreviated in form when juxtaposed with the main one.

Suppose the English word grasp is to be written in the Indian or Khmer style, the initial gr or the word grasp and also of sp of its ending will have to be coalesced as one whole by abbreviating the r and the s and blending them with their respective g and p. King Ram Khamhaeng split them each into independent characters, like the Roman alphabet, in the same manner as one writes the English word "grasp" above The vowel signs of the Indian and the Khmer form a different set from that of the consonants. They are written, as if an afterthought, either before, after, above or below the consonants, It is so in present Thai writing.

But in Ram Khamhaeng's scheme of writing it was otherwise. It is not out of place here to quote Dr. Cornelius B. Bradley, an American philologist, who states in his article, "The oldest known writing in Siamese, the inscription of Phra Ram Khamhaeng of Sukhothai" (The Journal of the Siam Society, vol. VI, part 1, p. 11, Bangkok 1909) thus: But the most original as well as the most interesting feature of his (i.e. King Ram Khamhaeng's) scheme of vowel-notation was his bringing of all the vowel signs into the written line along with the consonants, and so practically into the alphabet itself. Inclusion of the vowels in the alphabet was a master stroke of the Greek genius, when once for all it adapted oriental letters to the needs of a new world of life and thought. It is that alone, for example, which has made possible for all Western tongues the immense advantage of a perfectly fixed order of words in vocabularies, and lists. The lack of such absolute word-order is a difficulty and hindrance to scholarship more or less distinctly felt throughout the Eastern world, and everywhere for the same reason :- the vowels have no place in the alphabetical order. Prince Ram Khamhaeng, so far as we can learn, is the only man in all this interval who has come at all near to duplicating that old Grecian thought. But be did not carry his thought through to its logical conclusion. He did not give the vowels their place in the sequence of elements in the syllable, as he had given them in their place in the line. Siamese scholars, unlike the Greek, were conning oriental scriptures. They thus kept ever alive the old tradition, and obscured the new. Very few years passed before the vowels which had been brought into the line were back in their old stations in the field.

Thus it is that for Siamese of to-day, type that can be conveniently cast and set and dictionaries where words may be easily and certainly found, seem as unattainable as ever." In 1917 A.D. King Vajiravudh revived this vowel scheme of notation of King Ram Khamhaeng as an experiment, but found no success. No doubt the old tradition of writing the vowel signs, like the original Indian and Khmer is still strong.

With the exception of vowel notation as mentioned above, the writing of the Thai follows, fundamentally, King Ram Khamhaeng's writing up to the present day with certain modifications and additions due, of course, to the development of the writing.

As already mentioned, the Thai language is a tonal one where words of the same sound vary in meaning relative to their tone. With the exception of the Thai of Thailand, all the written Thai words in different dialects, and also of the Shans and the Lao, have no written signs to mark the different tones of a word which sometimes varies from dialect to dialect.

The Thai word for the verb to come or for horse and dog is written as "ma" but pronounced in a different pitch. One cannot tell which "ma" is intended in writing. Only the context in the surrounding words will give a clue to it. But in Ram Khamhaeng's writing it is otherwise. He invented two tonal signs to mark the different tone in the word.

In its development, present Thai writing has four signs to mark the tones. Any person interested in the tonal system of the Thai language can investigate the subject at some length by consulting the introduction to the Thai-English Dictionary by George B. McFarland, M.D. (Bangkok, 1941; 2nd edition, Stanford, 1944).

There are in the modern Thai or Siamese alphabet 44 consonants. Of these, 16 are redundant, leaving in all 28 basic consonantal sounds. The redundant consonants are used chiefly in transliteration of Sanskrit and Pall words. In fact, there are two consonants in this redundancy which are now obsolete.

The arrangement of the letters of the alphabet follows the Sanskrit and Pall scheme, i.e., a division into six series related to the different places of contact in the production of consonantal sounds. The language is written from left of right like English.

Of the vowels, there are 24 with 9 simple vowels and 12 diphthongs with corresponding relative long and short sounds. There are also 3 triphthongs, making in all 45 vowels both long and short.

The final consonants of words or syllables are k, t, p, or their corresponding nasal consonants and the two semivowels y and w. Such endings have unexplosive sounds


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